(Posted July 7, 2023) By accident of birth, I was a boy in the 1960s and came of age in the ‘70s. As quaint as it may seem now, the ethos of my household as I grew up was that we may disagree with the government from time to time, but we can trust that it’s at least doing the responsible thing, and is being straight with us.

If you’re Gen X or younger, that paragraph may come across as somewhere between naïve and bizarre. But if you factor in the era, I perceive that views like this weren’t rare. As I consider the history that unfolded during my youth, a story emerges – one of official betrayal and dishonesty and savagery that previous generations may have regarded as unthinkable. Here’s what happened:

In November 1969, when I was an 11-year-old, news reports emerged that American soldiers had senselessly massacred hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a village called My Lai. I knew Vietnam to be a faraway place where bad things happened, but we were there to help the Vietnamese resist communism, and I knew that that was an important national objective. I might have even doubted the reports because they were so far removed from my view of America.

Six months later, on May 4, 1970, during antiwar protests at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen opened fire with military-grade M-1 rifles on unarmed students who were protesting escalation of the war. Four students died and several more sustained serious wounds. I was still naïve at the age of 12; I remember even now that my initial thought upon learning of the killings was that the students must have done something very bad, because they had to be shot. (In my own retroactive defense, I hadn’t quite begun to think for myself yet about such matters.)

A year later, in June 1971, The New York Times and The Washington Post published a series of stories about a set of documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. By then I was a grizzled 13-year-old, but I have no recollection of paying any attention to this news; the prospect of reading a bunch of boring documents – right around the liberation date of the last day of school! – would not have interested me. I didn’t know then, but these papers revealed widespread systematic lying by the American government to the nation, painting a far rosier picture of things in Vietnam than the truth would indicate. Multiple presidential administrations had long known that the war was unwinnable, but they kept sending young American men halfway across the world to be slaughtered anyway.

Another year forward brings us to June 17, 1972, when an alert night watchman noticed suspicious activity in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel in Washington; you know the story. Another four months would pass until The Washington Post reported in October that the break-in had been ordered by the White House. A year after that came the Saturday Night Massacre, in which the president ordered the firing of lawyers who were investigating him – a classic conflict of interest that I recognize now, but that I probably missed back then at age 15. The president managed to cling to office for another several months before giving up and resigning, several months after his vice president had left in shame due to his own criminal conduct.

I’ve singled out these particular events for a reason. I didn’t include the political assassinations and the race unrest and the other problems of the day, because these listed events all represented acts by our government. These were the things that our elected officials, that the United States of America, had undertaken.

I don’t know how to quantify public trust in government in those days, but my best guess is that it plummeted at some time in the period between 1969 and 1973. To be sure, plenty of folks didn’t trust the government from the outset. Racial minorities in particular had good reason to doubt America’s bona fides. But I sense that events like these convinced many people – maybe even a silent majority – that faith in government was unjustified. By these acts, our government had squandered that trust and its immense value.

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What do all these things have to do with the modern appellate system? As I see it, the most visible element of the American judicial branch – specifically, the Supreme Court of the United States – is throwing away its once-enviable public regard. Americans have long recognized that partisan bickering is one of the hallmarks of the elected branches, but have felt that the justices are above that pettiness. Once sworn in, they can be trusted to do the right thing. Oh, we may disagree with some of their decisions, but the Supreme Court as an institution was safe from the scorn that many of us felt for those who demagogically campaign for votes.

For many Americans, their views of the Court may still be transactional: Love ‘em or hate ‘em depending on the outcome of the most recent media-magnet opinion. But for us – for bench and bar – we insist that the Supreme Court must be above that. A constitutional democratic republic without a well-respected high court is operating under a serious impairment.

You’ve seen the recent news stories about lavish gifts given to SCOTUS justices who fail to report them as other jurists must, and then decline to recuse themselves from appeals involving their benefactors. With any other jurist, recusal would be an easy decision, because the gifts create an unmistakable appearance of impropriety, one that seriously diminishes the court’s ability to dispense equal justice under law.

But the jurists whom I call Those Other Robes have resisted any check on their own conduct, other than informal self-policing on an individual basis. If any such constraints are in place now, the public cannot know, because the entire process is wholly opaque.

It’s worse than that. Faced in June with a string of pointed questions after a ProPublica investigation, Justice Alito gave that organization the silent treatment and instead unwisely penned a preemptive op-ed defense of his actions for a more sympathetic outlet: The Wall Street Journal. His Honor then got to read the accusatory story run in newspapers across America below a color photo of him smilingly holding a trophy king salmon next to his billionaire pal.

We’ve seen more stories that drain the Court’s institutional legitimacy: Justice Thomas’s cordial relationship with a billionaire donor, or the overt political involvement of his wife in matters that have come before the Court; Justice Gorsuch’s sale of real property to a senior partner at a law firm with frequent appearances at One First Street. [Update: A few days after I published this essay, another story emerged about Justice Sotomayor’s efforts to push sales of her book as a part of any public appearance. This comes across as, if not corrupt, at least crass.] Assuming that you charitably maintain that some or even all of these actions don’t constitute actual conflicts, they unquestionably create appearances of impropriety. A jurist, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion if the Court is to maintain public trust.

The stabilizing influence here is supposed to be the Chief Justice of the United States. John Roberts is well-known as an institutionalist who reportedly cares more deeply about the Court than about any individual appeal. Public trust and confidence – which Judge Jay Wilkinson of the Fourth Circuit correctly called “our most valued asset” – isn’t eternal, and if damaged, it will wither, just as public trust and confidence in America’s government did fifty years ago in response to a string of damning revelations.

Surveys tell us that public confidence in the Supreme Court is collapsing. The Gallup organization reported yesterday that just 27% of Americans have either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the Court. The math here is easy: 73% of us don’t have even a fair amount of confidence in the ultimate arbiter of American law.

I recognize that the views of John Q. and Jane Q. Public might turn on matters that we lawyers might see through. In that light, another survey came as a shock to me: The National Judicial College surveyed its members – jurists all – and learned that just 32% had either a great deal of confidence or quite a lot of confidence in the high Court; 26% had some confidence; 41% had “very little.” These are judges!

The causes for this collapse of confidence are probably multiple, but the justices’ utter disdain for a code of conduct has to be a major part of it.

I was naïve in the late 60s and early 70s; please forgive me for that. I’m not naïve now. The Chief Justice should take a strong lead in implementing a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices. If he does so against some of their wishes, let them dissent – preferably publicly, so America can see who the holdouts are and what rationalizations they offer for their being above mere canons of judicial ethics.